On being a Music Critic – Interview with Glenn Gamboa
I really like to learn and I really like to tell stories. Over the years I’ve learned to ask and to listen and more often than not, people are willing to tell you a bit of their story. Last night was no exception. I had the privilege of speaking with Glenn Gamboa, music critic for Newsday, a very well known paper based in New York. As a teacher at university, I lead a couple of classes that have to do either with popular music or with music criticism, and so this was a wonderful opportunity to gather real stories – the straight from the person evidence that supplements academic texts and historical documents.
Glenn chose the time and I stopped what I was doing to make the call. I happened to be by the seaside and if you listen closely, you can hear children playing behind the initial ringing sounds, and there is one moment when a runner and his dog go by. The evening bats overhead didn’t make a sound.
Both the interview and transcript are below. Glenn was incredibly generous with his time, and I know my students will be excited to listen and follow up by reading his work. After the recorded portion of the call, I asked for guidance as to which of his pieces my students should read (Glenn is a very prolific writer). He suggested these for starters.
They represent a range of short and longer pieces. I am sure when you read them, you will notice the absolute breadth of knowledge, attention to detail, and sheer amount of careful craftsmanship that has gone into putting together each piece. Even though Glenn speaks with such openness and with easy-going fluidity about what he does, mastery takes thousands of hours of practice, as with any discipline. I was definitely aware that I was speaking to one of the masters of this craft. Thank you Glenn for sharing your time with us!
A telephone conversation between Newsday Music Critic Glenn Gamboa and Laura Ritchie, 5 October, 2018
Newsday, this is Glenn.
-Hi ! This is Laura Ritchie in the UK
Hey Laura, how are you?
-I’m fantastic! So this is fantastic and thank you so much. First question before we say anything, can I record the call to share with my students?
Oh sure, definitely.
-Thank you! So, you’ve been a music critic for a very long time.
…a very long time [laughs]
-No but seriously- for years and years, you’ve seen change that’s been unprecedented actually- gosh, I can’t even imagine. Will you tell me a bit about some of it?
Sure- Should I talk about how things are different now than they were 5 years ago?
Like how streaming has changed things? Ok. ‘Cause that may be the biggest change as far as my job is concerned. Before streaming people used to look at music critics the same way they look at tv or movie critics. Well more movie critics than tv critics – it’s a public service in a way. If you’re looking where you’re going to spend your money, you want to know whether it’s good. You want to get as much information about whether it’s good or not before you buy it or before you see the movie. And people looked at music reviews in the same way. It’s like do I want to spend my $12 on this new album or that new album and they would look at the reviews and say well, this one got better reviews so I’m going to get this one first. With streaming that doesn’t happen anymore.
You can listen to whatever you want wherever you want. They don’t need us for the warning or the support for an album because they can judge for themselves, and so that’s kind-of changed not just our role, but the amount of weight that people give our opinions
because they have their own opinions. They can make their own opinions. And that has really changed the way the job is.
People looked to music critics for, like you say, what to buy, but do you think that has changed- 1. How has that changed the discovery of music and knowing where to look? And 2. What does that mean for you?
Well discovery is pretty much the focus of the job now. People are still going to be interested to read what music critics think about the new Adele album, but they’re not really going to care because they’re going to listen to it for themselves and form their own opinions. It’s the newer artists, the ones they haven’t heard of yet. If we can connect them to someone they like by saying this sounds like these people and if you like these people you might want to check them out. I think that’s what a music critic’s job is for today, because there’s so much music- to give people a way to navigate through it, and I should maybe check out these people and I don’t really need to check out these other people that people were talking about.
But they get more recommendations, and better recommendations – I’m sure they feel- from their friends.
Their friends will have a better idea of ‘well you should listen to this and you don’t need to listen to that’. In some ways for music critics, unless they’ve had like a long follow- a long-time relationship with the reader (like I’ve been here 18 years) so people know, they know to listen to me in things, in genres they like and they know ‘well he never likes things like heavy metal, or whatever, so I don’t care what he has to say’, so they treat you as a friend in that way too, but I think discovery is pretty much the main component.
Q: Are there certain components that you would say are key, that, whenever you’re introducing a new group or something that people don’t know about that you would include in a write-up?
Yeah, I would definitely try to say where they fit genre-wise or what musical approach they’re looing at. I would try to give people as many mile-posts as I could. So- she sort-of sounds like Adele, or like Lady Gaga, or she’s obviously influenced by Katy Perry, or something like that. If you can link it to something that they know or even – she’s the anti-Katy Perry – that still tells them, gives them an idea of what they’re in for.
And so that’s definitely what I try and give people. You know – what it sounds like, who it sounds like, what their influences are and what their approach is to the music.
[Yeah, that’s great]
Q: Do you ever feel that your impact on a group is – I mean, do you feel the weight of the impact a review can have?
I do. I mean, as I said it’s lesser now in the last few years, it’s definitely has declined. I remember when I started here on Long Island, my start pretty much coincided with the rise of the Long Island music scene. A bunch of EMO bands here on Long Island all started kind-of gathering steam at the same point and I was the main one chronicling them and so I could feel that I would write about bands and suddenly they would have 500 people at their show, or 1000 people at their show, and it wasn’t all because of me, but I let people know that the show existed and I let people know that this band was part of that scene and suddenly there were a lot of people at the Long Island places. And that doesn’t really happen that much any more because everything is much more compartmentalised and people don’t really move in those kind of blocks, but at that point –in 2001-2005 I really did feel the weight that all these people are really reading and listening to what we’re writing about.
[yeah – that’s both awesome and possibly daunting – laughs- but…]
It is [laugh]
Q: Do you think, now this is a question that came up actually from talking to our mutual friend Geoffrey, do you think that the focus of what bands are doing when they perform or when they create their image has shifted from something that has a real personal, a tangible personal connection with the audience, to something that is more geared for media and social media consumption. So perhaps it still has a connection, but it might be a personal and not so much a communal connection?
Right. I think that’s true. There is most definitely an increased personal connection [now more] than ever before. People really do feel they know their favourite artists through their Instagram or their Twitter and they can see what they wear every day and they can really relate to them on a personal level. The communal thing is definitely less because it used to be that the only way you would be able see your favourite artist was with a thousand or two thousand of your closest friends. You shared that experience of seeing them together. Now every day you have a specific experience with your favourite artist and the communal part isn’t as important. It still can be a great experience, but it’s not the overwhelming- day-to-day is still social media; it’s individual.
When I run in to fans a lot it’s more they feel connected to people because they saw a video on their Instagram or they really felt the connection when they were discussing their love of rescue dogs or something. It’s just as often that is the reason rather as much as their music is great or I really enjoyed their show. It’s more of a personal connection now.
Q: Have there been any bands or artists over the course of your time as a critic that that have really stood out as being incredibly unique and have just like stuck in your memory, whether it was for production reasons, writing reasons, the impact they had – it could be anything.
Yeah, there have been plenty. One of the ones that stands out early on was Sigur Róss, who, they sing in a made-up language. They’re Icelandic, but they don’t sing in Icelandic. They sing in a made-up language that their singer made up, but they create such beautiful music and his voice is so beautiful and it doesn’t really matter that you don’t understand what he’s saying or that maybe it doesn’t really make any sense, but the moment of what they conveyed through the music was so stunning that the rest of it didn’t really matter. It was kind-of an amazing thing. Bjork was the same way when she was dealing with the more orchestral part of her career. I felt that it didn’t really matter what she was saying, although sometimes that really added to what she was doing. It was the music and the sound of her voice that really carried the day.
Q: Do you have any advice for people, young people now, who are attempting to break into the industry. You know, they haven’t really done anything yet – they’ve got the band or they’re composing things, they’re hoping to do session things. Is there a direction, that you’d say, you need to be aware of this?
Yeah, I think one of the great things about the internet is that anyone can be a star now. You can put your music out there and if you promote it in the right way and get the right number of people to listen to it, it can grow from there. We’ve seen that happen. The one thing I would caution people is that you really do have to be prepared to play your songs live in front of people. That is actually going to prove to the large number of music fans whether or not they should consider you something serious or not. You can put out a lot of great videos and great songs on Soundcloud or on YouTube, but until you can do it in front of a live audience, they’re still going to be more sceptical.
[That is interesting.]
But, anyone can do it. You don’t have to wait until you get a record contract; you don’t have to wait until you get an agent; you can do it yourself. You can do it with your four friends. It is more possible today than it was ever before.
[Yeah, that’s an awesome sort-of ray of hope there! (laughs)]
-I think that’s my questions!
-Thank you so much!
Oh, no problem!
-Thanks for making the time!
Oh, it was great talking to you.
Alright, take care.